The Prospects of Nuclear War

Hawks, Doves, and Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War

edited by Graham T. Allison, edited by Albert Carnesale, edited by Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Norton, 282 pp., $14.95

The Button: The Pentagon's Strategic Command and Control System

by Daniel Ford
Simon and Schuster, 270 pp., $16.95

Hawks, Doves, and Owls is the report of the “Avoiding Nuclear War” project carried out at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Some of its contributors have had direct experience of policy-making circles in Washington. What is more, its editors, Graham Allison, Albert Carnesale, and Joseph Nye, Jr., all of Harvard, have a clear message. The protection of US values and institutions is absolutely dependent on the avoidance of nuclear war. And since no one can know how such a war might be set off or, if started, controlled, that imperative need is also dependent on the avoidance of any war in which the Western Alliance and Warsaw Pact powers might become embroiled. What is more, the three editors recognize that “the nuclear threat creates a solidarity of interest between the two superpowers—against a total war in which they would be the greatest victims.”

It is against this background, and on the sensible assumption that “US-Soviet rivalry, superpower interest in Europe, and Third World instability” are unlikely to change in the near future, that the six scholars who contribute the specialized essays in this book consider how things could go wrong. The editors provide the introductory chapter, which sets out what they call the “agenda,” and they end the book with recommendations for action.

The first chapter, on accidental nuclear war, is by Paul Bracken of Yale. Whatever might have been the situation in years gone by, he argues, technological and organizational developments have made it all but inconceivable that a war could erupt today as a result of the sort of accident that is often discussed—for example because a nuclear weapon had been launched after an operator had incorrectly interpreted radar blips made by a flock of geese, or because of a failed computer chip, or even through the action of a “crazed military officer.” There are many who are not as optimistic, among them Daniel Ford, whose book I shall be discussing later.

Bracken is more worried about trouble arising from maritime accidents in which ships or submarines are sunk because of a hasty and incorrectly drawn conclusion that they were attacked as part of a larger plan. What is needed is a continuous channel of communication between the American and Russian authorities. For the rest, he wants the US to concentrate its “energy on preventing confrontations,” and the establishment of “design principles and rules of the road” to deal with periods of intense crisis. He is also worried because he has a hunch that Britain, France, and China “have given even less thought to these issues than the United States has.” If what he writes is an indication of how far the US has got in formulating “rules of the road” to deal with the danger of unintentional nuclear war, the three countries he mentions will not have far to go before they find themselves up against a brick wall.

In the essay that follows, Richard Betts, formerly a staff member of the…

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